Posted by Richard Harland Smith on March 16, 2013
There’s a moment from Arnold Laven’s THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957) that has stayed with me since I first saw it some 35-40 years ago, in revival at my local drive-in, showcased with the Paul Landres two-fer of THE VAMPIRE (1957) and THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958) — all projected in green. (Primarily so that the management of the Danielson-Putnam Twin Drive-In could announce, honestly, an all color attraction.) Now, given that THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD is about Kraken big mollusks sliming military personnel and sundry civilians around California’s Salton Sea, you might well imagine my favorite moment is one of the film’s big setpieces, perhaps even one involving one of the Krakenettes pinching off the head of a canal lock watchman 0r sucking the vital fluids out of a Navy parachutist… but you’d be wrong.
Toward the end of the movie, when all the narrative cards are on the table and we know that atomic testing has supersized prehistoric mollusks to freakish proportions and a subsea earthquake has freed them from captivity and sent them from the Salton Sea into the local network of canals to work their wormy wickedness in an ostensibly desert setting, hero buddies John “Twill” Twillinger (Tim Holt), a Navy officer, and atomic scientist Jess Rogers (Hans Conried)– who have just blown up what they believe to be the mollusks hive or whatever you call it where mollusks hang — motor back to headquarters, where we further know a captured specimen of the beastie has slipped its bonds and is terrorizing Dr. Rogers’ secretary/Twill’s girlfriend Gail Mackenzie (Audrey Dalton) and her young daughter Sandy (Mimi Gibson). Twill tries to call ahead…
… but there is no answer.
Gail, you see, has her hands full elsewhere…
Nearly a quarter of a century before THE SHINING, Gail and her youngster have taken refuge behind a locked door as Li’l Kraken gets all Heeeeere’s Johnnny on their collective ass. But this isn’t my favorite part! No…
Back in Twill’s ride, believing the monsters to be, once again, history, thoughts turn to the mundane.
Twill: You wanna stop and get some breakfast?
Dr. Rogers: Oh, no. I had toast and coffee when I got up…
Dr. Rogers: … but if you want to stop…
Twill: No, I can wait.
And there it is. I know what you’re thinking — “Are you nuts?!” Generally, horror and sci-fi are both all about the tentpole moments: the thunderous creation of the monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), the stormy coach ride from the cemetery in THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), the zombie pig-out in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), the dinner scene in TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974), the “tree rape” in EVIL DEAD (1981) — and here I am crushing on toast and coffee talk. I don’t know, maybe I’m just goofy, but there is something about that exchange — which so easily could have been red-penciled or blue-penciled or whatever the protocol is, and would be if the film were made now and probably replaced with some song bearing an ironic meaning — that just delights me. Sure, I love the fact that this moment teases an audience primed for a monster-on-the-loose, cutting away from a tense situation so that two unaware characters can make small talk about pancakes, but even more than that it just seems, I don’t know, real or something, and the characters are just so… what’s the word? Decent. They’re decent, professional people, working a situation through a winning combination of native intelligence, institutional protocol, and courage in bulk. I love that each man is willing to inconvenience himself for the sake of the other — you know Rogers doesn’t care about feeding himself, he just wants to get back to his lab and you know all Twill can think about is a short stack, coffee, and a side of pork sausage, and it’s killing him that he can’t have that right now! — because each man holds the other in such high regard. I truly love the Twill-Rogers partnership in THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD as I do the Quatermass-Roney axis in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967) a decade later. It’s corny and square, I guess, but it comforts me. And I love it. So there.
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